Council backs away from Chinese only signage debate

Councillor reluctant to become like a 'language police' by contemplating new bylaw

Richmond Council is backing away from introducing a new bylaw to regulate inclusion of English on local business signage.

At a General Purposes committee meeting Monday afternoon, council members voted to go no further than simply receiving for information a 1,000-name petition calling for Chinese signage to also feature Canada's official languages.

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Submitting the petition were local residents Ann Merdinyan and Kerry Starchuk who have spent the spent the last eight months researching the issue, and taking photos of Chinese-only signs in the city.

The two fear those unable to read Chinese characters are being excluded.

Merdinyan added she would like to see a new bylaw similar to one in effect at the Aberdeen Centrea predominantly Asian-focused mallwhich has signage that is 70 per cent English/French. The remaining 30 per cent is displayed in the language of the retailers choice.

"Harmony is built on understanding. Communication is a key," Merdinyan said. "For the sake of our grandchildren and those who are waiting in the wings to come to Richmond, we must become a community inclusive of all peoplea legacy we'll all be proud of."

Councillor Chak Au said only receiving the petition for information, "will not be the right thing to do."

Au added he would like to have city staff examine the situation and come up with a process with the goal of forming a consensus through meaningful discussion.

"I think that's a better approach."

Au said his stance on the matter was not just based on cultural sensitivities, but also included safety issues involving emergency services who are often tasked with quickly locating a specific building.

And when one has signage devoid of English, "That can delay the rescue," he said.

Councillor Evelina Halsey-Brandt said she understood the concerns of Merdinyan and Starchuk, but could not support sending the matter to city staff for further investigation.

"I believe every business has the right to try and attract the customers of their choice," Halsey-Brandt said. "If they don't want me to come into their store because they have not informed me of what kind of business they offer, then I will talk with my wallet and my feet, and I won't go into it."

Halsey-Brandt added she has never had a problem regarding foreign language signage in Richmond.

"I go in and I talk to the people. If I don't understand what's on the menu, I ask them," she said. "I have never felt excluded."

Halsey-Brandt illustrated her point by reflecting on her personal experience as an immigrant who landed in Canada without knowing a single word of English.

In Winnipeg, her family resided in the city's Slavic sector and remained in a comfortable environment not having to learn a new language.

"We could shop at the Slavic stores, either Serbian, Croatian or Russian. We went to our church that didn't include any English. I went to Argyle School for new Canadians where there were 26 children who spoke 26 different languages, and no one learned how to speak English over a three-year period."

But her family decided they wanted to become "true Canadians" and moved westward to B.C. where she learned to speak English "real fast, because there wasn't anything else. And we integrated."

It took time to adjust, but the offshoot was that her heritage also remained intact.

"I still speak Serbo-Croatian. I read it, I write it. I practise many things from my own culture, and never, ever felt Canada stopped my from doing that," she said. "As a landed immigrant, I never want to deny the opportunity to someone else not to be able to fit into Canadian society at a comfortable pace. And to me, I think once I start prohibiting the signs from being in the language of their choice, I now encroach on a business's territory. And I don't want to go there."

Despite her opposition to have staff examine the issue Halsey-Brandt said she was not entirely happy with English-free business signs.

"Do I like that a lot of the signs don't include English? No, I don't like it," she said. "But I also don't like a lot of other things that happen that I don't want to start legislating. I do not want to become a language police."

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